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Annals of labeling: Winemakers should put the correct appellation on the label


With the new Fort Ross-Seaview American Viticultural Area’s first anniversary coming up in January, I was chatting with a winemaker who sources his fruit from a couple vineyards up there. I asked if he’ll use the new AVA on his labels starting with the 2012 vintage, and his reply was, quote, “Unfortunately, no.”

Why not?

“Because we have a hard enough time explaining to people what the Sonoma Coast is,” he explained, adding a line I’ve heard often: “Lots of people even think Sonoma is in Napa Valley!”

We had a long chat about whose responsibility it is to educate the public about these newer, smaller appellations. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation you often hear, not just in Sonoma County but in places like Santa Maria Valley (where some producers prefer Santa Barbara County) or even some of the smaller appellations in Napa Valley. A winemaker will say he doesn’t want to put the smaller appellation on the label because no one’s ever heard of it. I reply that the reason no one’s ever heard of it is because locals refuse to put it on the label! Doh!

Look, I understand that it’s the marketing, sales and distribution people who hate confusing consumers with appellations they never heard of. It’s a bloodbath out there trying to sell wine, and sales people need every break they can get, and have to avoid every pitfall, if they want to succeed. If I was in sales, I’d probably feel the same way.

But I’m not a salesman, I’m an educator. Part of my job (and my pleasure) is teaching consumers some of the finer points of wine, including where it’s from—and in my opinion, a label should bear the smallest appellation to which it’s legally entitled.

A winemaker, on the other hand, has to straddle both worlds: sales and education. Their heart and soul is in teaching people about the intricacies of barrels, yeasts, clones and the like, since these things constitute the DNA of the world they inhabit and love. Yet winemakers also have to sell their wine, and oftentimes they feel that they have to listen to their sales, marketing and distribution people, who know more about the business side than they do.

It is a conundrum, and I’m not giving advice to anyone, except to say that there are fabulous stories that can be told about smaller appellations—stories marketers can use. After all, P.R. people are always saying it’s all about the story, right? Fort Ross-Seaview isn’t just about Sonoma Coast, it’s about Far Sonoma Coast, about mountains and dirt roads and fog and sunshine and wild remoteness. Santa Maria Valley isn’t just about Santa Barbara County, it’s about a cool, foggy, windswept mesa of great uniqueness. I think these are important things to convey to the public.  It can be done on a back label, in a newsletter, on the restaurant floor by staff, by merchants in the store, at winemaker dinners, through winery websites and tweets and YouTubes. Of course, mass selling wines, which usually don’t come from small appellations, don’t have to worry about this, but the smaller family wineries, who frequently make the most interesting wines in California, really should be proud of their fruit sourcing, and let the world know about it.

Okay, I know I said I wasn’t giving advice, but I guess I am. Wineries: Promote these interesting, small regions that went through such hassle to get the TTB to approve them. If you love those vineyards enough to purchase [often expensive] fruit from them, you owe it to the growers, to your purchasers and, ultimately, to yourself to let people know were those grapes come from!

  1. It’s an a good question. Though for your particular situation, I guess I wouldn’t have thought that any wineries out in Ft Ross-Seaview would have a target consumer base that would be confused by the smaller sub-regions. It always seemed to me that if you’re growing out there, you have a pretty singular vision, which has a target demographic in the wine drinking public, that’s pretty sophisticated.
    But hey, what do I know?

  2. DR, you know a lot. You’re exactly right: the people who buy those wines do have a high level of understanding. They’re interested in wine and want to know more about it, including exactly where the grapes were grown.

  3. I couldn’t agree more with you, Steve. Terroir should be celebrated, not shunned or eschewed. It is frustrating to know that wines I like are often from unique sub-appellations and yet to see no mention of these areas on the bottles themselves. Education of the consumer is our collective responsibility.

  4. Steve, I agree with your sentiment. I would love to see all wineries choose to put the most precise appellation on their labels. But that isn’t to say it is the “correct appellation.” Sometimes the finished wine may not say Fort Ross-Seaview to the winemaker and Sonoma Coast might actually better represent what the wine is. When I visited with Kent Humphries of Eric Kent Wine Cellars last month, he had chardonnay from RRV that was labeled as Sonoma Coast because he felt that designation better described the wine. Sometimes, wineries can’t legally use the most precise appellation. If a winery in Texas buys Napa fruit, they can only label it as Napa if it is for sale in TX only. If they choose to sell it outside of Texas, it has to be an American appellation. Things would be so much easier (labelwise) if we had restrictive laws like the AOP in France, but alas winemakers have much more choice here. They can choose to put broader designations on their wines if they desire.

  5. Steve,
    I am disagreeing with you on this one.
    I do think some AVA’s have equality/market value in their name ( Napa, Russian River, Red Mountain and others), and of course I want that AVA on my label. These AVA’s do serve a purpose in letting the consumer know, they are getting what they paid for.
    But should we (as Americans) really be trying to become more like Burgundy? Chopping everything up into little plots here and there and confusing the hell out of everybody. Burgundy grows two grapes; we grow Chardonnay next to Syrah, next to Riesling, next to Sangiovese.
    Here is my main problem with small AVA’s:
    I buy Grenache from two vineyards less than a mile apart from each other, both within the Yakima Valley AVA. Vineyard A’s vines are 17 years old, split between two clones, planted in deep loamy soil, the grower sprawls the afternoon side of the canopy, probably has a different watering regime than Vineyard B( full evaoptranspartion throughout the season). Vineyard B, has planted one clone, the vines are 7 years old, tucks both sides of the canopy, is in shallow fractured basalt causing the canopy to be barely two feet high and is about 200 feet higher in elevation. I can go on but I think you get my point.
    The wines made are both Grenache, but obviously taste completely different. Would it educate the consumer better, if these two growers decided to ask the federal government for a smaller sub AVA with in the Yakima Valley?
    I would much rather they didn’t and tell the consumer myself, if they really wanted to know, (99.9% could care less) the differences between these two Grenaches.

  6. I echo an earlier post from Steve. The target consumer is the only person who matters here. For a wine from a small AVA, such consumers actually want to know its origin and terroir.
    Marketing is about understanding WHO will buy the wine.

  7. Paul Wagner says:

    Hi Steve: The chicken and the egg is right. For those AVAs that have enough size and money to promote themselves, it makes a lot of sense. But for the smaller AVAS that only have a few growers, no money, and no way to explain who they are? That’s tough.

    Sure, winemakers could help a bit…but if the role of the AVA is to help people understand the wine, then an inknown AVA isn’t going to help much. So the rich get richer…and the smaller AVAS continue to suffer.

    It’s not a new problem—look at Burgundy! Montrachet and Corton do just fine. Most of the other 600 AOCs? Not so much.

  8. It depends largely on the distribution of the wine.

    If the wine is a small tasting room-only wine it would make more sense to promote the smallest AVA for which the wine qualifies, since it’s a hand-sell and education is what you pay your tasting room staff to do. (Also, if you’re a winery that’s petitioning the TTB for a new AVA, it’s baloney to not bottle wines using this AVA if the wine qualifies.)

    If, however, the wine is sold far and wide, you can’t expect every server or wine shop owner to know where each new small AVA is, so it would make sense to label with a more general, and better known, AVA.

    For example, I suspect many wines with the “Lodi” place name would also qualify to be labeled as being from “Mokelumne”, “Jahant”, or maybe “Borden Ranch”. But who’s ever heard of those names outside of the Lodi region?

  9. I don’t know all the details regarding the TTB regs, but my recollection is that TTB does not like multiple appellations on a label, i.e. putting the sub-appellation and then subsequent larger inclusive appellations.
    It would do a lot for consumers if the TTB allowed Fort Ross-Seaview / Sonoma Coast on a label. That would at least help explain to the curious consumer where the fruit comes from but still provides a recognizable anchor appellation.

  10. Kurt Burris says:

    Speaking as a wine salesperson, anyone who objects to using anything to differentiate your wine from the pack is either crazy or lazy. In my opinion if you are making wine from a smaller appellation you are not looking for an endcap at Safeway, the wine will be sold, and probably hand sold, by a smaller wine shop or independent restaurant and they love having a story. And what is more evocative than a fog shrouded, wind swept coast?

  11. DR,

    I agree with you to an extent, those purchasing wines in that region probably do know the subtleties of the far coastal growing regions, I could only find one quick reference to confusion with regards to the AVA. Though Williams Selyem is not a winery located in the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA, they do source fruit from there quite often and in an article that Steve wrote (see link below) Bob Cabral is quoted saying “I’m not sure we’ll be changing to the new appellation on our labels, primarily because it’s not known,” and “People know the Sonoma Coast appellation far better than this new one,” he says, adding, “I just think it might confuse the consumer.

    I can’t say I disagree with Bob at this point, however I don’t feel confident enough to say that those who purchase WS are the most sophisticated drinkers (Hell I purchase wine from them, truth be told I know little compared to others)but knowing that WS prices of single vineyard wines range from the mid $50’s to as a high of $100 and while I don’t think price should dictate sophistication (though Im sure on some levels it does) its interesting that a Sonoma County power house such as WS is unwilling yet to use the new AVA. Then again, maybe those on the WS List are not as sophisticated as one might think or does WS not want to confuse the new wine consumers that may look to purchase WS wines in the near future? Your thoughts?


  12. Kiley Evans says:

    Excellent point, Steve, and I think you’re right, but the pure salesmen for the most part don’t have the same desire to educate the public like you and most winemakers. Conjunctive labeling resonates with consumers, but how far does it go toward achieving the goal of singular recognition?

  13. Mike Blom, if I remember correctly, soon the law will allow for “conjunctive labeling” in Sonoma County, so the label would read Fort Ross-Seaview / Sonoma County.”

  14. Not allow – require Sonoma County. Just like the Napa AVAs.

  15. Steve – you are absolutely correct about conjunctive labeling. That law has passed and over the next few years, all wineries will be asked to include Sonoma County on their labels. Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. etc. etc. I for one totally agree with this and feel it’s good for the Sonoma County brand. The SCV should be recognized and commended for their good work on behalf of the vintners.

  16. Paul Kochevar says:

    A unique compelling story is getting harder and harder to come by in the wine world. Using your AVA can simply be an opportunity to tell that story if not just enhance it. Particularly the unique AVA of Fort Ross-Seaview. Selling the wine comes after you have told your unique story. It is not a small winery resource problem…it is a marketing problem. Promote it, sell it, tweet it…tell the world a story the have not yet heard and they will come.

  17. Hear, hear Steve… I always have a hard time explaining to people “Sonoma Coast” because it’s all over the place… the largest AVA in the US. When I pull out bottles of Keller, Freestone, and Peay for a Sonoma Coast tasting, a look of confusion comes across people’s faces (mainly looks of “well, that’s dumb”) when I tell them there is a distance of 100 miles between the vineyards of Keller and Peay, with Freestone falling somewhere in between by the town of Occidental. I might be generalizing too much, but people who think Sonoma is in Napa Valley are usually the people who think Charles Shaw is a good bottle of wine (and it is… for people who don’t care to know much more about wine other than to drink some red wine). Those people aren’t going to buy a $50-$100 bottle of wine if their life depended on it. But for the others who want to learn more and buy more (and I’ve noticed this group growing in size very rapidly along with the foodie movement), it’d be more beneficial to break up the Sonoma Coast even further and to label bottles as such. Petaluma Gap pinot is clearly different tasting than an Annapolis-area pinot and an Occidental-area pinot. Fort Ross-Seaview undoubtedly worked hard for their AVA, and for other wineries who buy their fruit to choose not to label the bottle accordingly, is beyond me. When people ask “Where’s Fort Ross-Seaview?”, I can now point exactly to a map and show them and their expressions are more satisfactory in that they just learned something new, and are tasting it.

  18. Kent Humphrey says:

    Steve and Kyle,

    Small point of clarification since I was used as an example. The chardonnay in question could not legally have been called Russian River Valley as it was not a minimum of 85% from that AVA. But nearly 50% of the wine did indeed come from RRV fruit. The remainder came from two divergent sites, one in Sonoma Carneros and the rest in southwest Sebastopol, which falls only in the Sonoma Coast AVA. The only AVA available to me for that blend was indeed Sonoma Coast, as the SC AVA encompasses such a large territory. (Nearly the entirety of the RRV AVA is contained within the Sonoma Coast AVA.)

    But Kyle captures perfectly the sentiment expressed in our conversation. The wine displays a coastal influence and most accurately reflects what I think “coast” is trying to or at least “should” say in an AVA designation.

    I face the same question on one of our pinot noir, which is based primarily on fruit from two vineyards in Freestone. In vintages when at least 85% of the fruit for the blend indeed comes from Freestone, we could choose to label the wine Russian River Valley as the vineyards are technically within its boundaries. But the two vineyards are also located in the rather enormous Sonoma Coast AVA. If fact, literally walk across the street from these vineyards and you are exclusively in the Sonoma Coast AVA. So which one is more accurate? RRV by virtue of being smaller? Or Sonoma Coast as the vineyards are indeed coastal, cold, late-ripening, and produce fruit that is usually lower in sugar, spicy and herbal? I choose Sonoma Coast, even though it is the larger of the two AVAs, because I think it more accurately reflects the wine inside the bottle. At the end of the day, I think that is better for everyone!


  19. Kent, maybe I was thinking of the pinot noir. Either way, sometimes the freedom to choose between two (or more as there is always county, state and American designations…) appellations is of benefit to both the winemaker and consumer and not as simple as correct or incorrect!

  20. Kent Humphrey says:

    Kyle, I totally agree. The key is the intent. It must be to represent the wine as accurately or as “helpfully” as possible. The word “coast” ought to mean something when used in reference to a wine’s origin and it’s in that vein that I choose Sonoma Coast over Russian River Valley for that particular pinot. Most experienced wine drinkers would expect something more fruit-centric and full-bodied from the Russian River Valley appellation than the wine in question. I think Sonoma Coast helpfully suggests the wine is likely to show a bit more acidity, less heft, and a greater array of savory attributes than many (not all, of course) RRV pinot might. So in this case, the larger AVA would seem to serve the reader / drinker better than the smaller one. But that’s just my two cents!

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